The First Battle of Monte Cassino: the 36th Division Assaults Across the Rapido River

After sundown on 20 January 1944, the US 36th “Arrowhead” Infantry Division from the Texas and Oklahoma Army National Guard, began their movement to the shore of the Rapido River, intending to cross near the Italian town of San Angelo. Both the 143rd and 141st ran into German minefields, and mortar and machine gun fire from across the river slammed into the exposed troops. Mass confusion reigned in the darkness and the Americans had not even reached the near riverbank.

Nonetheless, the 141st and 143rd Regts pushed on all night and by mid-morning established shallow toeholds on the far shore of the narrow but swift and deep Rapido River. But in the daylight, no reinforcements could cross or even get near the near shore: the Germans on Monte Cassino could see every movement for miles and those on the hills above San Angelo could engage anyone even attempting to approach the riverbanks. The Americans’ Italian nemesis, the veteran German 15th Panzergrenadier Division counterattacked and eliminated the toeholds by midafternoon.

The 36th’s commander MG Fred Walker had previously told Clark that the river crossing was in the “worst possible spot”. He would know, as a battalion commander in the First World War, he slaughtered Germans trying to cross the Marne in a similar situation. Nonetheless, he decided to try again that evening. The regiments again succeeded in placing toeholds on the far shore by dawn, but the Germans again destroyed them by the end of the day. The German report for the action was only one sentence long, “Strong enemy assault detachments which have crossed the river are annihilated.”

MG Walker refused to continue the assaults, even though Clark ordered him to do so.

The failed assaults cost the 36th 2200 additional casualties effectively neutralizing the unit, with only one weak regiment, the 142nd, left to hold the line.

After the war there would be Congressional hearings as to if or why, “West Pointers deliberately threw away the lives of National Guardsmen.”

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